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Successful $2 million endowment campaign raises the bar in agricultural communications at Illinois

Published December 9, 2013
Ken Rinkenberger, Doyle Karr, John Volk, and Lyle Orwig spearheaded fundraising efforts for the Dr. James F. Evans Endowment in Agricultural Communications

URBANA, Ill. – The University of Illinois announced today it has achieved the $2 million fund raising goal for the Dr. James F. Evans Endowment in Agricultural Communications that will extend the contributions of the program into the future. It will provide sustained leadership in a mission of agricultural and food systems communications education, research, and service.

“The endowment is meant to strengthen capacity here to produce a new generation of communicators and create new knowledge to help meet the food, fiber, and fuel needs of a growing world,” said Dr. Lulu Rodriguez, newly appointed program director. “The educational mission is to prepare effective communicators who are rooted in the agricultural, food and environmental sciences, as well as skilled in the use of all media—from traditional print to Twitter, from community meetings to social networking on the Internet.”

“With subject matter expertise and communication competence, our students are better able to improve communications within agriculture, as well as bring the importance of agriculture into people’s everyday lives. Such an expertise is critical,” Rodriguez explained.

Established in 1961, Agricultural Communications at Illinois is now a unique dual program offered by two colleges—the College of Media and the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES). Students, as part of the two colleges, are eligible for scholarships, internships and research opportunities in both, according to ACES associate dean Laurie Kramer. Upon graduation, they become alumni of both colleges.

The program has long been a breeding ground for journalists, advertising and public relations specialists, and strategists who help educate producers on consumer needs, help transfer technology from the laboratories and research farms to mainstream agriculture, and facilitate public dialogue on agriculture issues.

“First-rate education should be coupled with cutting-edge research,” Rodriguez added. She believes that future professionals in this field should be as scientific about communications as they are about the sciences they communicate. She is determined to help Illinois “ag comm” sustain its long-standing status as a hub of excellence in agricultural communications, including first-rate teaching, research and service for all who want to communicate more effectively in relation to food, feed, fuel, the environment, rural affairs and international development.

“The opportunity for a career in agricultural communications is much greater than when we were students because the need is much greater,” said Lyle Orwig, chairman and founding partner of CharlestonÇ€Orwig Inc., Hartland, Wis., and chair of the agricultural communications alumni team that spearheaded this funding effort. “Average people do not understand where their food comes from or appreciate the need for our ability to produce food in quantities that will feed the world,” he noted.

“Think about the global security issues we’ll be facing in the near future: farmers will be asked to feed 9 to 10 billion people, and there are also the consolidations that have happened in the agricultural and food industries. Agriculture has a broader meaning now; it encompasses food, fiber, fuel, and human and environmental systems,” Orwig added.

“We have scarce, finite resources with a burgeoning population and a billion people reaching middle class globally in the next five to ten years. I don’t know how you could pick a more exciting career or a better place than Illinois to prepare for it,” said Ken Rinkenberger, manager of KWR Consulting, LLC, Morton, Ill., and a member of the campaign team.

Doyle Karr, director of DuPont’s biotechnology public policy and another member of the team, thinks agricultural communications faculty, students and professionals must be prepared to influence important issues in food, agriculture and the environment. He emphasized that they must prepare to capitalize on the opportunities that have emerged in food and agriculture policy. Knowing how to blend technical expertise with information science is key to that effort, he said.

Bringing passion and tenacity to the task

Orwig, Rinkenberger, Karr, and John Volk, president of John Volk Associates, a communications consulting firm in Chicago, Ill., spearheaded the fund drive to raise the bar in agricultural communications at their alma mater.

Answering the call, alumni and friends gave generously. In addition, corporations, cooperatives, commodity groups, major agricultural media and communications firms, and agricultural organizations made contributions that allowed the campaign to reach its goal, said Volk. Other ag comm alumni played crucial roles on the team, including Jay Vroom, Tami Craig-Schilling, and Colleen Callahan Burns. “It was really a broad coalition of people and interests, and we are so grateful,” he added.

The four alumni reminisced about the perfect combination the U of I had offered them: a small, welcoming program at a respected land-grant university, a first-rate education, and the lifelong friendships they made here.

They were nicknamed the “Fab Four” by ACES senior director of advancement Kim Meenen for their dedication, influence and fundraising ability. They believed that the best way to ensure an excellent agricultural communications program at the University of Illinois was to create an endowment that would attract the best and the brightest for enduring leadership.

“We wanted to continue the legacy of Dr. Jim Evans who started the agricultural communications major and helped so many of us enter satisfying careers. He recruited us, showed us how to study and what to study, introduced us to professionals across the industry, and helped most of us get our first, second, and third jobs,” said Orwig, a veteran in reputation management.

“In a 40-year career in business, I always found that the ability to communicate is fundamental—not only externally to important audiences, but also internally to teams, leadership, and stakeholders. The core communications skills I learned here were vital in my career,” added Rinkenberger, who was president of Corn States and Holden’s Foundations Seeds for Monsanto.

The alumni are excited about the hiring of new program director, Lulu Rodriguez, who has 20 years of experience in communications teaching and research. She got her first taste of agricultural communications as she made field visits with her agronomist father in the Philippines. She began her college studies in a pioneering degree program in development communication.

“I feel very confident now about the program’s direction,” said Rinkenberger. “With the hiring of Dr. Rodriguez and the addition of new lecturer Samantha Koon, we’re moving forward with a lot of energy. And, if a program is measured by the quality of its students, the ones we have now are spectacular. The U of I Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow group was just named national chapter of the year.”